In the same exclusive spirit, American school boards proposed that American school-children should begin the study of history with the colonization of America, ignoring the trivial episodes which preceded this great event. Patriotic protectionists heaped duties on foreign art, and bade us buy American pictures. Enthusiastic editors confided to us that ‘the world has never known such storehouses of well-selected mental food as are furnished by our American magazines.’ Complacent critics rejoiced that American poets did not sing like Tennyson, ‘nor like Keats, nor Shelley, nor Wordsworth’; but that, as became a new race of men, they ‘reverberated a synthesis of all the poetic minds of the century.’ Finally, American novelists assured us that in their hands the art of fiction had grown so fine and rare that we could no longer stand the ‘mannerisms’ of Dickens, or the ‘confidential attitude’ of Thackeray. We had scaled the empyrean heights.
There is a brief paragraph in Mr. Thayer’s Life and Letters of John Hay, which vividly recalls this peculiar phase of Americanism. Mr. Hay writes to Mr. Howells in 1882: ‘The worst thing in our time about American taste is the way it treats James. I believe he would not be read in America at all if it were not for his European vogue. If he lived in Cambridge he could write what he likes, but because he finds London more agreeable, he is the prey of all the patriotisms. Of all vices, I hold patriotism the worst, when it meddles with matters of taste.’
So far had American patriotism encroached upon matters of taste, that by 1892 there was a critical embargo placed upon foreign literature. ‘Every nation,’ we were told, ‘ought to supply its own second-rate books,’—like domestic sheeting and ginghams. An acquaintance with English authors was held to be a misdemeanor. Why quote Mr. Matthew Arnold, when you might quote Mr. Lowell? Why write about Becky Sharp, when you might write about Hester Prynne? Why laugh over Dickens, when you might laugh over Mark Twain? Why eat artichokes, when you might eat corn? American school-boys, we were told, must be guarded from the feudalism of Scott. American speech must be guarded from the ‘insularities’ of England's English. ‘That failure in good sense which comes from too warm a self-satisfaction’ (Mr. Arnold does sometimes say a thing very well) robbed us for years of mental poise, of adjusted standards, of an unencumbered outlook upon life.
It is strange to glance back upon a day when we had so little to trouble us that we could vex our souls over feudalism and fiction; when—in the absence of serious problems—we could raise pronunciation or spelling into a national issue. Americanism has done with trivialities, patriotism with matters of taste. Love for one’s country is not a shallow sentiment, based upon self-esteem. It is a profound and primitive passion. It may lie dormant in our souls when all goes well. It may be thwarted and frustrated by the exigencies of party government. It may be dissevered from pride or pleasure. But it is part of ourselves, wholly beyond analysis, fed upon hope and fear, joy and sorrow, glory and shame. If, after the fashion of the world, we drowsed in our day of security, we have been rudely and permanently awakened. The shadow of mighty events has fallen across our path. We have witnessed a great national crime. We have beheld the utmost heights of heroism. And when we asked of what concern to us were this crime and this heroism, the answer came unexpectedly, and with blinding force. The sea was strewn with our dead, our honor was undermined by conspiracies, our factories were fired, our cargoes dynamited. We were a neutral nation at peace with the world. The attack made upon our industries and upon our good name was secret, malignant, and pitiless. It was organized warfare, without the courage and candor of war.
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The unavowed enemy who strikes in the dark is hard to reach, but he is outside the pale of charity. There was something in the cold fury of Mr. Wilson’s words, when, in his message to Congress, he denounced the traitors ‘who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life,’ which turned that unexpansive state-paper into a human document, and drove it straight to the human hearts of an injured and insulted people. Under the menace of disloyalty, Americanism has taken new form and substance; and the President’s message, like the potter’s wheel, is moulding this force into lines of strength and resistance. We have seen all we want to see of ‘frightfulness’ in Europe, all we want to see of injustice, supported by violence. We are not prepared to welcome any scheme of terrorization in the interests of a foreign power, or any interference of a foreign power with our legitimate fields of industry. Such schemes and such interference constitute an inconceivable affront to the nation. Their stern and open disavowal is the shibboleth by which our elections may be purged of treachery, and our well-being confided to good citizenship.